Too many people in Maine still smoke.
That means too many Maine people see their health decline because of tobacco, and many eventually see their lives cut short.
One way to virtually ensure the number of adults who smoke goes down over time is to see to it that fewer smokers pick up the habit when they’re young. And one way to limit the number of young people who start smoking is to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.
Maine’s Legislature has a chance to take this important stand in favor of the public’s health as it considers legislation this spring to raise the tobacco purchase age. The bill, LD 1170, is scheduled for a work session Monday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. It’s sponsored by state Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, and has a mix of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
Already, Hawaii and California have raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21, and lawmakers in Oregon and Texas are considering similar moves. If Maine joins them, it would also be following in the footsteps of dozens of cities across the country and one in Maine: Portland last year raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco products within city limits to 21.
The change might seem inconsequential. After all, as things stand today, young people who are determined to smoke find a way to get their hands on cigarettes or e-cigarettes before they turn 18. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, nine of every 10 smokers in the country today started smoking before they turned 18. If the legal purchase age changed to 21, presumably those younger than 21 would still find a way around the new restriction.
But raising the tobacco purchase age can still help — potentially in a big way.
The Institute of Medicine projected in 2015 that tobacco use would decline by 12 percent with the legal age set nationwide at 21. It would take years for the nation to see the full health benefits of that decline, but the Institute of Medicine projected the result would be 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019. The collective impact for this group would be 4.2 million fewer years of life lost because of smoking-related health problems.
The benefits would have to do mostly with lowering what the Institute of Medicine calls “initiation rates” among 15- to 17-year-olds. With the tobacco purchase age set at 21, the Institute of Medicine report notes, “those who can legally obtain tobacco are less likely to be in the same social networks as high school students.” The logic is simple: A 16-year-old is less likely to have a 21-year-old friend than an 18-year-old friend, making it that much more difficult to find someone to buy cigarettes and that much less likely the 16-year-old will start smoking.
And that’s important because the still-developing adolescent brain is “uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction,” the Institute of Medicine report explains. Essentially, the younger someone is when he starts smoking, the more likely it is he’ll become addicted. On top of addiction, smoking cigarettes early in life can slow lung growth and even prevent young lungs from growing to full capacity.
Making tobacco purchases off limits to those younger than 21 is one step Maine should take to prevent more of today’s young people from becoming the next generation of smokers.